Question # 51: In the Qur’an, God mentions “we created the universe” why is God referring to We? Who is We?

bismi-llahi r-raḥmani r-raḥīm,

Assalamu ‘laikum warahmatullahi wabarakatuh,

All praise and thanks are due to Allah (سبحانه و تعالى), and peace and blessings be upon His Messenger (صلى الله عليه و سلم).

Dear questioner,

First of all, we implore Allah (سبحانه و تعالى) to help us serve His cause and render our work for His sake.

Shorter Answer: The Qur’an was revealed in the language of the Arabs, and in Arabic it is as correct to use the plural when speaking of one person as it is to use the singular. But the plural is used for respect and glorification, and no one is more deserving of respect and glorification than Allah (سبحانه و تعالى). So the singular is used to affirm the fact that He is One and has no partner or associate, and the plural is used to affirm His glory and majesty, may He be exalted. Moreover, singular form is used by Allah (سبحانه و تعالى) either to convey His extreme love or extreme anger.

Long Answer:  It is a feature of literary style in Arabic that a person may refer to himself by the pronoun nahnu (we) for respect or glorification. He may also use the word ana (I), indicating one person, or the third person huwa (he). All three styles are used in the Qur’an, where Allah (سبحانه و تعالى) addresses the Arabs in their own tongue (Fataawa al-Lajnah al-Daa’imah).

Shaykh al-Islam Ibn Taymiyah (may Allah have mercy on him) wrote in Al-‘Aqeedah al-Tadmuriyyah: “Allah, may He be glorified and exalted, sometimes refers to Himself in the singular, by name or by use of a pronoun, and sometimes by use of the plural, as in the ayah: ‘Verily, We have given you a manifest victory” [Soorah al-Fath 48:1], and other similar ayat. But Allah never refers to Himself by use of the dual, because the plural refers to the respect that He deserves, and may refer to His names and attributes, whereas the dual refers to a specific number (and nothing else), and He is far above that.”

Also, Shaykh al-Islam Ibn Taymiyah (may Allah have mercy on him) wrote in Majmaoo’ al-Fataawaa some words which may be of interest to us here: “With regard to Allah’s closeness to us, sometimes it is mentioned in the singular, as in the ayah: ‘And when My slaves ask you (O Muhammad) concerning Me, then (answer them) I am indeed near (to them by My knowledge). I respond to the invocations of the supplicant when he calls on Me…’ [Soorah al-Baqarah 2:186] and the hadith: ‘The One on Whom you call is closer to any one of you than the neck of his riding-camel’, and sometimes in the plural, as in the ayah: ‘… And We are nearer to Him than his jugular vein’ [Soorah Qaaf 50:16]. This is like the ayah: ‘We recite to you…’ [Soorah al-Qasas 28:3] and ‘We relate unto you…’ [Soorah Yoosuf 12:3]. Such usage in Arabic refers to the one who is great and has helpers who obey him; when his helpers do something by his command, he says ‘We did it,’ as a king might say, ‘We conquered this land and we defeated this army,’ and so on.” (Shaykh Muhammad Saalih al-Munajjid)

Even in Torah (Hebrew Bible), God is referred as ‘We’ and a rabbi would say ‘God is Royal, he is the King and the King speaks in plural.’ For that matter, even Presidents speak in plural. In the Qur’an, different types of pronouns are used by Allah (سبحانه و تعالى) to address Himself – first person: ana (I) – singular and nahnu (We) – plural; second person:  anta (you) – singular; and third person: huwa (he) – singular. So, Allah (سبحانه و تعالى) uses singular as well as plural only in the first person. If this was actually plural, we should have found its usage in second and third person as well.

Moreover, when Allah (سبحانه و تعالى) is addressing formally or distancing Himself from a group of people, he uses the third person, because it is most distant pronoun. Second person is used when the slave of Allah (سبحانه و تعالى) talks to Him (makes dua’a), for e.g., ‘…anta Maulana fansurna ‘alal-qawmil kafirin’ (Soorah al-Baqarah, 2:286). As for the use of ‘I’ and ‘We’ – let’s use an analogy; let’s say a President is delivering a speech ‘We have come up with such and such policy. We are doing so and so for the uplift of…..’ and suddenly someone from the audience talks in the middle, he will say “Don’t you see, I am talking’ or let’s say, he sees a small baby passing by, he might say “So cute, I love you, darling”. So when he addressing formally, he uses ‘We’ but to convey his extreme love or anger, he uses ‘I’. Same is the case with Qur’an, Allah (سبحانه و تعالى) uses ‘I’ in case of extreme love or extreme anger. The following are examples from the Qur’an, where Allah (سبحانه و تعالى) used ‘I’ for Himself:

  1. “…Wa ‘Ana At-Tawwabu Ar-Rahimu” : “…And I am the One Who accepts repentance, the Most Merciful.” (Soorah al-Baqarah, 2:160) depicting act of extreme love;
  2. “…Fa’inni ‘U`adhdhibuhu `Adhabaan La ‘U`adhdhibuhu ‘Ahadaan Mina Al-`Alamīna” “…I will punish him with a torment such as I have not inflicted on anyone among (all) the ‘Alamin” (Soorah al-Maidah, 5:115) depicting act of extreme anger;
  3. “Qala Ma Mana`aka ‘Alla Tasjuda ‘Idh ‘Amartuka…” “(Allah) said: “What prevented you (O Iblis) that you did not prostrate, when I commanded you?” (Soorah al-A’raf, 7:12) depicting act of extreme anger;
  4. “Wa ‘Idha Sa’alaka `Ibadi `Anni Fa’inni Qaribun ‘Ujibu Da`wata Ad-Da`i ‘Idha Da`ani Falyastajibu Li Wa Liu’uminu Bi La`allahum Yarshuduna” “And when My slaves ask you (O Muhammad) concerning Me, then (answer them), I am indeed near. I respond to the invocations of the supplicant when he calls on Me. So let them obey Me and believe in Me, so that they may be led aright. (Soorah al-Baqarah 2:186) depicting act of extreme love.

Nahnu is used in the Qur’an when Allah (سبحانه و تعالى) speaks in the role of a King/Majesty, especially when the King endorses big policies or confers gifts. For example, when Allah (سبحانه و تعالى) talks about Revelation of Qur’an, a great gift to humanity in the following ayat:

  1. “’Inna Nahnu Nazzalna Adh-Dhikra Wa ‘Inna Lahu Lahafizuna” “Verily We: It is We Who have sent down the Dhikr (i.e. the Qur’an) and surely, We will guard it (from corruption). (Soorah al-Hijr, 15:9)
  2. “Wa Ma ‘Anzalna `Alayka Al-Kitaba ‘Illa Litubayyina Lahumu…” “And We have not sent down the Book to you, except that you may explain clearly unto them…” (Soorah an-Nahl, 16:64)

However, Allah (سبحانه و تعالى) was really angry with Bani Israel because they should have accepted the Qur’an, so he uses the singular form in the following ayah:

“Wa ‘Aminu Bima ‘Anzaltu Musaddiqaan Lima Ma`akum Wa La Takunu ‘Awwala Kafirin Bihi Wa La Tashtaru Bi’ayati Thamanaan Qalilaan Wa ‘Iyaya Fa Attaquni”  “And believe in what I have sent down, confirming that which is with you, and be not the first to disbelieve therein, and buy not with My Verses a small price, and fear Me and Me Alone.” (Soorah al-Baqarah 2:41)

And the most important aspect- since Islam is based on Tawheed (the oneness of Allah), how does Allah (سبحانه و تعالى) protect His oneness inspite of using Nahnu?  The answer is that in the entire Qur’an, either before or after the usage of Nahnu, Allah (سبحانه و تعالى) makes sure He teaches that He is only One. For example in the following ayah:

“’Inna ‘A`taynaka Al-Kawthara, Fasalli Lirabbika Wa Anhar” “Verily, We have granted you Al-Kauthar; Therefore turn in prayer to your Lord and sacrifice (to Him only)” (Soorah al-Kawthar, 108:1-2) (Video Lecture by Nouman Ali Khan)

Allahu A’lam (Allah (سبحانه و تعالى) knows best) and all Perfections belong to Allah, and all mistakes belong to me alone. May Allah (سبحانه و تعالى) forgive me, Ameen.